PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The nurses' union has re-issued its plans to strike after lengthy negotiations Monday.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association's Berkshire Medical Center chapter and the hospital have been attempting to settle a contract for more than a year and a half after the last contract expired in September 2016. In October, the nurses went on a one-day strike that was followed by a four-day lockout.
In February, the nurses again issued a strike notice but withdrew it at the last minute as progress was seemingly made. After multiple negotiation sessions since, with the latest being on Monday, no settlement was reached and the union has again re-issued its notice for a strike. The strike is planned for June 18.
"Our nurses have said it loud and clear: We will not stop fighting for staffing improvements that help keep our patients safe. We have demonstrated our unity with three separate votes and have persisted despite the length of our fight and management’s divisiveness,” said Alex Neary, co-chair of the nurses local bargaining committee.
"Today management offered proposals that do not make sufficient improvements for us to provide our patients with the care they deserve."
Officials at Berkshire Medical Center said once again it will take steps to ensure a continuity of care during the strike.
"A willingness of our registered nurses to walk out on our patients and community is, of course, regrettable. However, we have made arrangements — as we did in October and had in February if the threatened winter strike had occurred — for a seamless continuation of the quality of care that our community has rightly come to expect of us. No services will be interrupted and no patients should be concerned about the climate or quality of care they will find at the hospital during the job action period that our registered nurses have apparently chosen to embrace," reads a letter penned by hospital spokesman Michael Leary released Tuesday morning.
The main divide between the two sides is how to handle staffing. The nurses have been calling for increased staffing levels and guidelines to limit the number of patients a nurse has at a given time. Most recently, the union had asked for charge nurses to start shifts without having to also care for patients. That also called for specific reasons for which a charge nurse should take on assignments but that didn't alleviate the hospital's concern of getting contractually locked into certain arrangements which may not be possible.
"The union demanded that dozens of 'charge nurses' in the hospital be largely free from patient assignments. The hospital responded by demonstrating that such assignments, driven by patient census changes and unanticipated nurse absences, occur only a small fraction of the time, but, nonetheless, in response to the union's stated concerns, the hospital offered to add resource nurses to further minimize the times when charge nurses have to care for assigned patients," Leary wrote.
"Over that same period, the union sought substantial increases in nurses' pay and the hospital agreed to increases amounting to 14 percent over a four-year period and upward adjustments in night shift and other differentials."
The union had hoped to push the issue by offering what it considered a compromise in which the union had agreed to accept the hospital's plan to raise the percentage nurses to pay for individual health insurance premiums by 10 percent — moving from a 90/10 split to an 80/20 split to align with other employees in the building. The union said it would agree to that but also asked to push off the increase until 2020, and stood firm that the pay package would help mitigate the impact on the workers.
The hospital didn't see that as much of a compromise.
On Monday, the hospital added a fifth year to the offer it had on the table as well as adding a 3 percent pay increase with an additional 2 percent adjustment for the nurses at the top of the scale, bringing a 19 percent pay increase over the course of the five years, according to hospital administrators.
"For the past four months, the hospital has, at every opportunity, made clear to the union and to the registered nurses it represents that if they did not timely accept the hospital's offer or if they chose to deliver another strike notice, the offer would be withdrawn," Leary wrote.
"The hospital's reasoning is not punitive, but rather the result of its obligation to redirect hospital resources that could have benefited the nurses and use them instead to maintain quality hospital services during disruptive and pointless nurses’ strike. The hospital regrets that the registered nurses and their union have chosen a confrontational course that results in the generous offer being withdrawn and those resources diverted to strike preparation.
"Berkshire Medical Center holds its registered nurses in the highest regard and acknowledges that they are an essential part of a broad patient care team that has made possible the nationally award-winning care available here at home. Nevertheless, the hospital cannot agree to contract terms that put the rest of the care team and hospital operations themselves at serious risk over time. A new strike cannot and will not change that fact."
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